Institutional upheaval in Yemen, micro Arab Springs

Published on 18 February 2013 in Report
Samar Qaed (author)

Samar Qaed

(Cartoon By Rashad Al-Samii courtesy of Al-Jumhouria Newspaper April 2011.)

(Cartoon By Rashad Al-Samii courtesy of Al-Jumhouria Newspaper April 2011.)

Deafening shouts exaggerated through speakers radiate through the hospital wards as anxious patients try to find someone to attend to their needs. What used to be one of the country’s most distinguished hospitals has turned into grounds for large protests used by angry employees demanding salary increases and benefits and accusing management of corruption.

Employees of Al-Thawra State Hospital have been on strike for the last seven months and intend to continue until their demands are fulfilled.

The director of the hospital, Dr. Abdulkarim Al-Khawlani, stands helpless before this chaotic situation, unnerved by the fact that his staff instead of treating patients, are ignoring them and disturbing their peace with the speakers.

“These protestors do not care about the patients, all the doctors are standing in the yard while the patients are looking for anyone to take care of them," he said, almost standing beside himself in exasperation.

"Where is the oath they swore by? Where is the humanity? Is this how rights should be attained?”

But, the protestors say they have had enough. They say they attempted to amicably ask for a dialogue with the hospital's administration, but now they are taking it to the next level.

“We waited and waited. We objected peacefully and demanded our rights quietly since 2011. But when no one paid attention to us, we decided to get louder,” said Fuad Al-Barakani, the secretary general of the Al-Thawra Hospital Laborers Union.

Al-Thawra Hospital is one of at least 40 public institutions whose staff went on strike or carried out some sort of institutional protests over the last two years. Nationwide, the use of protests by employees against management has become a growing trend since the emergence of the protests in 2011 that toppled former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's reign of power.

 In many instances, management did not put up much of a fight against the protestors and relented within days or a couple of weeks, leading to agreements between management and employees regarding issues like official contracts and unpaid wages.

However, out of the reported institutional protests in 2012, less than 50 percent led to actual upheaval.

In 2011, employee protests caused management changes in 18 government facilities.

Illegal protests

Although peaceful protests are protected by the 1995 law per Article 146 of the Labor Code, lawyer and legal activist Nabila Al-Mufti says Article 150 of the same law prohibits strikes in essential institutions like airports, central banks or the oil sector where daily income losses due to strikes are estimated to cause significant financial distress or like in hospitals where the public's general interest is at stake.

“The ministerial cabinet passed a decree last August criminalizing all forms of strikes in occupations or institutions that would consequently and significantly impact the national economy,” she said.

“According to this law, employees are forced by law to carry out partial strikes, so that they take shifts in getting the work done or delivering services.”

On the flip side of protestors' anger at an inability to voice their concerns, management says protests are triggered by personal interests rather than actual grievances.

Mohammed Shidiwa, the former director of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), who was ousted from his job a month and a half ago, said he was removed from office not because of his inability to meet employees' demands but because of private objections from heavyweights in the department.

“There are certain people in the authority who managed to lobby others and get them to create chaos because they wanted to take charge,” he said.  

However, the head of the EPA Union said Shidiwa's statement is not true. He said new management has come from outside the authority and is now working with employees to find solutions for their complaints.

It’s all about the money

A majority of employee strikes are based on financial grievances as disgruntled employees complain of insufficient wages.

Mohammed Al-Jadri, the head of the Yemeni Laborers Union said that there is so much corruption at institutional levels, that it forces employees at the lowest level of the institutional hierarchy to find a way to present their case.

“There is so much stalling in paying people their financial dues. This pushes employees to strike as a last resort as they don’t want to lose their jobs. We receive dozens of complaints daily from unsatisfied employees,” Al-Jadri said.

Some striking employees have escalated their protests to the point of a facility takeover.  Last month, Al-Thawra Newspaper employees locked themselves inside the paper's building and prevented the daily publication from going to print. Their action got the attention of the president, who personally intervened and promised to attend to employees' demands.

Protests can also turn very ugly.  In January of this year, bodyguards for Sana’a's Chief of Security exchanged fire with angry soldiers demanding his resignation, resulting in one death and three injuries. This was quickly followed by death of a protestor in the same week in Aden. The protestor was among a crowd of angry employees who tried to stop the head of the Central Organization for Control and Auditing branch in Aden from entering work. Following a heated argument between his armed bodyguards and the protestors, one person was killed.

Al-Jadri says if there was more financial accountability and transparency from officials, the protests would not be necessary and situations like that could be avoided.

Why can’t we have a civil way for demanding rights without being subjected to such violence?” he questioned.